Clinic is the only one of its kind in the Midwest
Charlene Stehlik had accepted the pain as part of her life. For more than 20 years, the pain was a constant, daily fight.
“I had a bleeding ulcer 26 years ago,” Stehlik says. “I just figured it was part of that.”
She describes it as feeling morning sickness every hour of every day. It grew progressively worse. She says her gastroenterologist couldn’t understand why it kept getting worse. He sent her to The Nebraska Medical Center where she was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis.
Patients with disorders like hers can now be treated by the team in the newly created Comprehensive Pancreatobiliary Disorders and Autologous Islet Cell Transplant Clinic.
“The impetus behind starting this clinic was making sure we could offer specialized care for these individuals,” explains Luciano Vargas, MD, surgeon at The Nebraska Medical Center. “These patients have complex problems and often they get left behind.” That’s how Stehlik felt. She couldn’t play with her five grandchildren. Some days were spent curled up writhing in pain. She knew nothing but constant pain.
After finding the source of her pain, she learned the treatment was something she never imagined: an autologous islet cell transplant.
“He said, ‘I think we can fix this,’” Stehlik remembers. “If it would give me back my life that’s what I wanted. That’s why we opted for it.”
Islet cells produce insulin from inside the pancreas. During a transplant, the patient’s pancreas is removed, and its islet cells are relocated.
“We are able to infuse those islet cells into the liver where they retain their function,” Dr. Vargas explains. “It is just housing the islet cells. The islet cells have just changed zip codes if you will. They were in the pancreas, now they’re sitting in the liver.”
Since her transplant, Stehlik has rediscovered “normal;” living pain-free in a way she had not done in more than 20 years.
“I no longer get up worrying about how I’m going to feel this morning,” she says. “I no longer wonder, ‘Can I have a cup of coffee or is it going to make me sick?’”
While the medical center’s clinic is new, the physicians behind it bring with them years of experience in a number of medical specialties.
“Not only do you have a surgeon involved, you have a pancreatic specialist from a GI standpoint, and you have an endocrinologist involved.” Dr. Vargas says. “We have consolidated these individuals into one place.”
In addition to the specialist physicians in the clinic, there is also a nurse case manager who works directly with each patient throughout his or her treatment.
“Prior to coming to this clinic, many patients they feel like they’re not being heard,” says Christina Sailors, RN, clinical nurse coordinator at the clinic. “They can’t go to school, they’re missing work, and sometimes they’re on disability. They’re really at the end of their rope when they contact us. So to give them hope is really exciting.”
Charlene Stehlik says she has found that hope and happiness.
“All the doctors here at the med center, all the nurses; I’ve told them so many times; thank you thank you thank you.”